Control of Congress in seniors' hands

Looking to next election, both parties court voters over 60

Democrats have scored major points with senior citizens over President Clinton's proposal to add prescription-drug benefits to Medicare.

Republicans, in turn, have found a winning issue with older voters in their proposal to wall off Social Security surpluses from the general federal budget - the so-called "lock box" plan.

In short, the two major parties are showcasing senior-oriented issues in a bald effort to court the over-60 vote, a segment of the electorate that turns out in relatively high numbers. In the eyes of strategists for both parties, this is the make-or-break demographic in the battle for control of Congress.

The fight for the senior vote "is the central battleground" in the 2000 election, says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake.

For Democrats to retake the House, they must also retake the majority of voters over age 60, she says. In the last election, when the GOP maintained slim control of Congress, Republicans won the senior vote 55 to 45 percent.

Even more heartening to Republicans was the fact that, in last November's congressional elections, a majority of senior women for the first time voted Republican. Senior men shifted toward the GOP in 1994 and stayed there in 1996.

But there's more to courting seniors than just issues that directly target them.

Exit polls from the last election show that, after Social Security, "moral and ethical standards" were the issues that mattered most for older voters. Of those who voted on the basis of that issue, most were women and the vast majority went Republican. That choice was a direct repudiation of Mr. Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, analysts suggest.

"Everything we know about seniors is that they're more socially conservative" than younger voters, says John Rother, a lobbyist for the American Association of Retired Persons. They look upon Clinton as another baby boomer who can't resist temptation, he says. This explains why Vice President Al Gore is highlighting his own family values - his wife and four children, a grandchild due any day, and a strong mother - in his campaign to succeed Clinton.

But Democrats are preparing to go after the senior vote on as many fronts as they can find. So far, Clinton's proposal to add prescription-drug benefits to Medicare, the federal health-care plan for senior citizens, has been "wildly popular" with them, says Ms. Lake, the Democratic pollster. Clinton will formally unveil his plan later this month.

About one-third of Medicare beneficiaries currently do not have any prescription-drug coverage, and so must pay out of pocket for medication. (Other seniors buy private drug coverage or belong to health-maintenance organizations with drug plans.) Democrats have at their fingertips story after story of fixed-income seniors who regularly choose between food and medication or wind up in emergency rooms with conditions that they say could have been prevented with medication.

Republican strategists acknowledge that Democrats have a winning issue, and are still weighing how to respond. GOP concerns center on the cost of adding drug benefits to Medicare: While the Clinton administration has claimed the program would pay for itself, in savings reaped from preventive care, some Republicans say the program could cost at least $20 billion a year.

"The Democrats have really succeeded in putting the Republicans in a difficult spot," says a Senate Republican aide involved with the issue. "Of course, every older American supports a prescription-drug benefit - but then the cost is so tremendous. We are talking about adding a benefit to a program that's already struggling financially."

On the flip side, Republicans are making inroads with seniors on Social Security, which faces eventual insolvency. The GOP proposal, which passed the House with a huge majority last month, would block the use of the Social Security Trust Fund's current surpluses from being used for general budget purposes.

Democrats have responded to the Republican "lock box" plan by saying they support it, too. But Clinton administration officials have been cool to the idea, arguing that tying up that money could hinder the government's ability to fund emergency activities, such as the war in Kosovo.

Part of the Democrats' problem on Social Security is that the party doesn't speak with one voice on the issue, and so the message is muddled. Some Democrats, for example, support the idea of private Social Security investment accounts and others don't.

In contrast, in the early 1980s, when President Reagan talked about making Social Security voluntary and cutting benefits by raising the retirement age, Democrats unified in opposition.

"The Democrats went to town on that," says Lawrence Jacobs, an expert on senior citizens and public opinion at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "They did well among senior voters, because [they] created a very stark difference with the other party."

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